[Interview] R. J. Heald

R. J. Heald is author of 27: Six Friends, One Year (Dancing Parrot Press, 2012); founder of Five Stop Story and editor of Five Stop Story: Short Stories to Read in 5 Stops on Your Commute (Five Stop Story Press, 2011).

In this interview, Heald talks about her concerns as a writer: 

When did you start writing?

Like a lot of writers, I always loved creative writing when I was a child and I remember writing stories as one of the highlights of my primary school education. I continued to write into my teens, but stopped completely during university.

I started writing seriously when I woke up from a dream with the idea for a book about five years ago. The idea just wouldn’t go away, and when I got home from work it was still at the front of my mind, so I just started writing. That was the first novel I wrote, but it’s still in draft form and remains in a drawer at present!

I’m not sure if I ever consciously thought “I want to be a published writer.” The overriding motivation was to write, to tell the stories that occupied my thoughts and to let loose the ideas. But when I finished the first draft of my second novel, publication seemed like a sensible goal. I got feedback from beta readers and produced five re-drafts of the novel over eighteen months. I entered the novel into the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition and reached the Quarter Finals.

I’d always been interested in publishing as a business, and I run my own digital publisher, Five Stop Story, which publishes short stories. Therefore, I didn’t approach any agents or publishers, but took the decision to set up my own publishing company and self-publish the novel.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

My writing is very contemporary and tells the stories of ordinary people and their everyday triumphs and disasters. My debut novel, 27: Six Friends, One Year tells the story of a year in the lives of six friends aged 27. On the surface they lead enviable lives, but underneath the facades, they are falling apart. They each face their adversities in different ways as they try and maintain their appearance to the outside world. The novel focuses on the events both big and small that shape their lives during their 27th year.

I write about the drama of ordinary lives, and I try to capture the complexity of relationships, telling each character’s story.

Some readers have compared my writing to One Day by David Nicholls and I think that’s a good comparison.

Who is your target audience?

My target audience is predominantly women in their 20s, 30s and 40s. However, I’ve had feedback from men and women outside of this age bracket, who also enjoy my writing.

One piece of advice I heard when I was writing was “write the book you’d want to read.” That’s what I’ve done with 27: Six Friends: One Year. So I suppose the target audience is people like me.

In the writing you are doing, which authors influenced you most?

My debut novel, 27: Six Friends, One Year is all about everyday life, so my experiences and those of my friends have influenced it a lot. However, I think the experiences in the novel are universal. So, although my experiences have guided me to a certain extent, the novel is really an amalgamation of everyone’s life stories.

Jodi Picoult has been a big influence. I love the way she focuses on the importance of the relationships between characters in her stories. I think Nick Hornby and David Nicolls have influenced writing style with their use of different viewpoints.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

I actually think that the present day is a better time than ever to be a writer. There’s an amazing support network of other authors online; that just didn’t exist 10 years ago. Through this network you can get support from writing the first draft, to editing, to publishing and finally marketing. Authors like myself also have the opportunity to take things into our own hands and independently publish if we choose to do so.

That said, I suppose my concerns are the same as any creative person; essentially that people won’t like my work! However, the reviews so far have been very positive, which has been a real relief.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Finding time to write. Sometimes I feel like everything else should come first and writing is a treat that I reward myself with if I manage to get everything else done. I work full time and also run a small digital publisher, Five Stop Story so I’m always pretty busy.

I’d love to have more time to write.

Do you write everyday?

Sadly, no. I never have done. I tend to write when I’m inspired which is why I have so many beginnings of novels and short stories, but comparatively few endings. However, when I’ve been writing first drafts of my two completed novels, I’ve been more disciplined and I’ve written most days. I had to fit it around everything else, so it might have meant writing in a lunchtime, or on a train, or first thing in the morning before work. But I made sure I did it.

I’m going to start the sequel to 27: Six Friends, One Year soon and I intend to go back to a more disciplined approach. But at the moment, marketing my debut novel is taking a lot of my limited spare time.

How many books have you written so far?

My debut novel 27: Six Friends, One Year was released in July 2012 by Dancing Parrot Press. It’s contemporary fiction and it was a Quarter finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.

I also have a short story featured in Five Stop Story: Short Stories to Read in Five Stops on Your Commute, a book which I also edited.

In addition to that I have a novel, Obsession which I am currently redrafting. This novel was one of the winners of the Next Big Author Competition in September 2011 and was shortlisted for the Brit Writers Awards.

How long did it take you to write 27: Six Friends, One Year?

It took me two years to write the novel, from the first draft to the published form. It was published in July 2012 in the UK. I set up Dancing Parrot Press in order to publish the novel. I didn’t approach traditional publishers or agents, because I was concerned about the timescales involved. Usually it takes at least a year to get an agent ,another year to find a publisher and then a further year to bring a book out. My novel is set in the here and now and I didn’t feel like waiting around.

Of course self-publishing has advantages and disadvantages. I get complete control, over the edit, the cover design and the sales channels, but I have to pay for editors and cover designers. And I have to do all the marketing myself. I’m relishing the challenge, but it’s not for everyone.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?

I think I found asking for feedback the most difficult. After working on your own on a project for so long it can be hard to put it out into the world for critique. I was lucky to have 10 really generous beta readers who provided constructive feedback, 90% of which I’ve taken on board in the multiple rewrites.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

Writing the first draft. Everything was up for grabs, I was in complete control and I could take the story wherever I wanted to. It was liberating.

What will your next book be about?

It will be the sequel to 27 – re-meeting the characters in 27 in three year’s time and seeing how they’ve changed. Of course they’ve been living in my head for the last two years, so I already have a good idea what they’ve been doing. I just need to get it down on paper!

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I’ve had some success in writing competitions that I’m very proud of. I was a winner of the Next Big Author Competition in September 2011 and I was a Quarter-Finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition earlier this year. However the best feeling I’ve had so far has been when I’ve received 5* reviews from people I’ve never heard of. That’s a real buzz.

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